Pleasant Grove • The night before the day he made the biggest decision of his life, Brandon Fanaika paced into the living room of his family’s tidy home, a black Stanford hat propped on his head.
When asked if the cap could be taken as an indication of his intentions on National Signing Day, Utah’s top high school recruit bristled. He twisted the hat backward and furrowed his black eyebrows into a thoughtful zigzag.
“It’s one of my favorite hats,” he stammered, “so...”
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The heavily recruited offensive lineman sat down and pulled off the cap, as if he had just realized its power, and set it on a coffee table in front of him.
Twelve hours later, Fanaika once again sat behind that hat, in the student center at Pleasant Grove High School. Sharply dressed in a pressed white shirt and a gold paisley tie, he passed his hand over the cap and said, “I gotta stay close to home...”
His mother Navu had advocated that he attend Stanford, where he would be the first full-blooded Tongan to play, and looked ill as her son reached for a red Utah hat.
Then his hand snapped back and she smiled.
“... so I’m going to Stanford.”
There were cheers as he once again propped the hat on his head, fully aware of its power.
Overwhelmed by his options, Fanaika swayed from school to school during the recruiting process. On National Signing Day, however, he returned to where he began.
After committing to Stanford on Dec. 30, Fanaika started considering other options in January. In the final day, he added BYU and California to his final list, although he never seemed to consider them as seriously as Utah and Stanford.
While other top recruits such as Lone Peak quarterback Chase Hansen (Utah) and Davis defensive end Troy Hinds (BYU) were committed for half a year before Signing Day, Fanaika kept everyone guessing until the end.
That included his parents and even himself.
A hulking prospect at 6-foot-3 and 293 pounds, Fanaika sits on a couch and you expect it to tip over, like a rake when an elephant steps on it. But his railroad-tie calves keep everything anchored to the floor. He is a portrait of stability. But on Tuesday night as he discussed his options, time ticking until he would sign and send his National Letter of Intent to Palo Alto, Calif., he twisted the hem of his sweatshirt into a knot that matched his nerves.
“The coaches at Utah,” he said, “I consider them just as friends. They’re amazing people. In these past couple weeks I’ve become very fond of these schools. So, yeah, that’s pretty much where I stand.”
The Utes told Fanaika they wouldn’t stop recruiting him until he signed elsewhere.
On Saturday, the day after Stanford head coach David Shaw canceled an in-home visit, seven Utah coaches traveled to Pleasant Grove, a staggering commitment to one recruit.
They filled the living room.
With three members of the staff forced to sit on the floor, coach Kyle Whittingham planted himself on an end of the couch and extolled the values of being close to home and the LDS Church culture, as wells as the deep Polynesian influence within the program.
Sefita Fanaika is a native of Tonga who attended the University of the South Pacific. He told his son nothing would match a Stanford education. However, even he was temporarily moved by Whittingham.
“I told him, ‘I’m sold,’” Sefita Fanaika said. “They were all pitching to Brandon and I said ‘I’m sold.’”
Navu Fanaika rolled her eyes.
“My husband committed on Saturday,” she said. “When they left I told him to decommit.”
The parents stuck to their guns and encouraged Fanaika to go to Stanford, despite their overflowing respect for the Utah staff.
At Stanford, you’re not just a football player, Navu Fanaika told her son.
“You could be in the room with the next Bill Gates,” his father added.
But Fanaika was drawn to Utah. At one point he told his friend, Hansen, that he intended to join him with the Utes.
“I know he’s put a lot of thought into this decision,” Hansen said. “Almost too much, where it’s been a lot for him.”
As Tuesday evening drew to a close, Fanaika said he would go to sleep and wake with a decision.
When Fanaika teased his family, friends and Utah fans by saying, “I gotta stay close to home...” the room’s collective pulse quickened.
But then, the drawn-out process was over.
“I almost thought for a second that I was going to be a Ute,” Fanaika said.
It took too much work, he said, to get noticed by Stanford and to meet the rigorous academic standards.
“I woke up this morning and I just knew that I had to be at Stanford,” he said.
His mother wiped away tears and dropped a string of Stanford beads around Fanaika’s neck.
“Now,” she said, “I can breathe well. Now I can rest.”
• Pleasant Grove star Brandon Fanaika signs with Stanford, despite thinking over the weekend that he might spurn the Cardinal for Utah.
• Fanaika was rated as the No. 1 high school prospect in Utah byrivals.com.
• Fanaika originally committed to Stanford in December, but reconsidered after taking official visits to in-state schools, including Utah.
• The Utes made a strong late push for the lineman. Coach Kyle Whittingham and six assistants made an in-home visit Saturday to try to win him over.